thousands stand together against brexit
In a show of unity with the European project, thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest against Brexit, rising xenophobia, and the chaos that faces UK politics.
After the explosion comes the fallout. Following the announcement that Britain had voted to leave the EU, the Prime Minister resigned within hours; racially-motivated hate crimes and hate speech soared by 46%; Corbyn faced all-out revolt as 172 Labour MPs passed a vote of no-confidence against his leadership; and the pound dropped to its lowest level in 31 years, causing market instability that wiped $2.1 trillion dollars from the global markets. In uncertain times, only one thing can be predicted with any confidence: Nigel Farage, ex-banker-turned-voice-of-the-disaffected, will continue to waddle his way across the scorched earth of the British political landscape with the insufferable grin of a second-hand car salesman while everyone else prays that he chokes on a pub snack.
In protest at the result, the hateful tenor of the campaign, subsequent racist abuse, broken promises by Bojo and Farage, and a host of other factors, thousands flocked to Trafalgar Square to demonstrate. The demonstration, originally cancelled due to fears over crowd control after 50,000 potential attendees were set to converge on central London, continued despite downpours. Thousands congregated in a show of love, anger, disappointment, regret, hope, and pan-European solidarity.
Starting in Trafalgar Square, speeches on migrant solidarity and betrayal of young voters were met with rapturous applause. Cheers thundered as a protester mounted one of the lions surrounding Nelson's column and raised a placard to the audience: "UKIP suck my balls," read one side, "Farage is a rancid, festering cunt," read the other.
A few hours in, the atmosphere shifted. Thousands began to move, marching on Parliament to chants of "Fuck you Boris" and "Migrants in, racists out!" The protesters made their way past the Commons, finally storming a quiet green, interrupting a live Channel 4 broadcast in the process. Chants of "Shame on you" and "Eton mess" ricocheted off the walls of Westminster.
Despite the apparent unity of the crowd, protesters had conflicting reasons for attending; not everyone was a committed Remainer. One protester told i-D that he voted leave "to kick out the Tory government," but consequently regretted his decision and felt that crucial Leave campaign promises had been broken as soon as the result was announced. The issue of broken promises was also raised by Charlotte, a 16-year old demonstrator who didn't get the chance to vote, but expressed frustration at the demographic split of the referendum result: "The youth didn't get the future they wanted. An older generations have chosen something we didn't ask for and that won't help us in any way." Her thoughts were echoed by countless other young demonstrators, many of whom also railed against the low turnout of their fellow young voters.
Katrine, a German who has lived in the UK for 20 years, described the pain she felt since the result: "It felt like this country, which I've lived in for 20 years now, turned round and said 'Fuck you, we don't want you anymore.' I have contributed to the economy and society the entire time I've been here. I'm devastated." Her pain was shared by the hundreds of demonstrators without British passports who had built lives here and lived in fear of their right to remain. Ann, a Swedish demonstrator bearing a placard reading "Londoner, Neighbour, Immigrant" told i-D that she felt being white, and speaking reasonably good English, saved her much of the xenophobia other migrants face, but nonetheless felt utterly rejected by the country she calls home. Eugenie, a 22-year-old demonstrator from the Cotswolds who was born in the UK to French parents, struggled to control her anger that she, as someone who has never known any other country as home, had been rejected by society at large. "We've lost family friends, I've been told I'm living off British taxpayers' money as a student here - the insults have been disgusting," she said, her voice cracking with frustration.
Despite the thrill of unity, uncertainty and confusion at how crisis could possibly be averted resonated with many of the sodden protesters. Some acknowledged that a second referendum risks flagrantly disregarding the democratic decision of social groups already excluded, ignored and dismissed by London's liberal elites. Many feared that might also add fuel to the flames of a rising far-right whose fury has already led to the defacing of a Polish centre in Hammersmith, a Molotov cocktail thrown into a Halal butcher's in the West Midlands, and reports of racist verbal abuse across England.
Others thought a second referendum would be necessary to avoid the full and immediate exit from the EU and the single market, fears over which currently promise unprecedented economic upheaval for the UK, Europe and the world.
Even the middle ground - exit from the EU but remaining in the single market (and therefore maintaining free movement of people) - garnered mixed support, with many worried that such a path would fly in the face of every statistic, poster and soundbite peddled by the Leave campaign, and ignore the concerns of voters across the country who fear demographic change. "We're fucked," said one protester who asked to remain anonymous, "Whichever way this goes now, we are utterly, utterly fucked."
Every possible path is littered with obstacles. Political unity, at its lowest ebb in living memory, recedes ever further as Westminster unravels, and grassroots community action seems the only way forward. This demonstration was one attempt to build bridges. Whether those bridges are beyond repair, and whether either side has the will to rebuild them, remains to be seen. With a march demanding a second referendum scheduled for this Saturday, the fight is just beginning.
Text Edward Siddons
Photography Christopher Bethell